TYPE OF TRIP
- City trip
- Themed trip
- Solo travel
August - September 2016
To get enlightened
I have a dear affinity with Saint Petersburg: my travelling career began here some 21 years ago. Even though my memories of those times might not be totally reliable, pictures prove I did, in fact, have a blast - see for yourself above. Either for the immediate connection with this city or for spending the following year in Sweden, I have had a strong inclination for northern latitudes ever since. And if in addition to being dark and cold it is also culturally rich, aesthetically pleasant, and surrounded by water, I am sold and booking a one way ticket.
To me, St Petersburg is all of that and beyond. I could wander about its streets for days no end soaking up the bohemian spirit this city is so well-known for. Add to that a splash of literary references that make these landscapes intuitively familiar, thanks to Dostoevsky's eloquent remarks in Crime and Punishment and Akhmatova's poetic descriptions, and this city becomes a literary work of its own. Wherever you go in Saint Peterburg, there is a story. So while most tourists are hitting up the Hermitage - good luck walking those 24 km of galleries and seeing 3 million exhibited items - and Petergof, I decided to follow in the Russian writers' footsteps and explore the city as they once knew it. Luckily, many of their houses and flats were turned into museums that are open to general public all year round. Along with places where they lived and worked, there are numerous spots around town that you will recognise from stories and novels.
But first, let me brush you up on some trivia. Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 so it is still a baby in world city terms. Its birthday, or city day, is celebrated on May 27th - the day when foundation stone in the footing of Peter and Paul fortress was laid. The founder, Tsar Peter I (Emperor Peter the Great from 1721 on), dreamed of building a great capital with direct access to the Baltic Sea thus establishing power in Europe. He did not name it after himself though, but after Saint Peter the Apostle. Funny enough, he also gave this name to three of his sons (all of them died in infancy like the three sons named Pavel). Over the course of history, the city's original name was changed to Petrograd (1914-1924), then to Leningrag (1924-1991), and back to Saint Petersburg (Russian: Sankt Peterburg). When you arrive at Pulkovo airport or one of the train stations you can also notice the title "Hero City" (Gorod-Geroy), which commemorates heroism of residents who protected Leningrad during the 872-day siege in World War II. This siege is regarded one of the deadliest in human history: the death toll is estimated at 1,500,000 civilians and soldiers.
Among Russians, it is common to call Saint Petersburg "The Northern Capital" (pointing to the centuries-old rivalry with Moscow) or "The Cultural Capital" as a reverence to the city's vibrant art and literary scene. Indeed, many Russians perceive it as a sophisticated and enlightened place, and this reputation also goes to natives of the city: polite, intelligent, well-read. While these notions are romanticised and exaggerated to a certain degree, the overall impression is quite accurate. So if you happen to pass a 24-hour book store or run into a public poetry reading, do not blame it on yet another hip trend - it has always been like this here. Even some street art here is socially aware, like the graffiti I came across in a random tucked-away courtyard that read: "We know for certain Johann [Sebastian] Bach never lived in these buildings. But you do not know anything about those who are living here now either." (see above). As far as my interpretation goes, the author implies that these days people do not bother to get to know their neighbours - most Russians still live in residential buildings with 2-3 flats per floor. But who knows, maybe (s)he was just being philosophical.
That said, I even managed to find a café where they bring your bill inside a book (see picture above). The idea is hipster enough but that's not their main attractions: Solaris lab is primarily known for the great views over picturesque red roofs and St Isaac's Cathedral in the background. Try their purple tea and don't forget some cash - they don't accept cards.
My literary tour was meant to start at the Apartment Museum of Joseph Brodsky (not to mistake with Isaac Brodsky the painter and his house museum). In his Russian days, Brodsky lived with his parents on Liteyny Prospekt in a small communal flat that was shared between several families and that he described in essays called “In a Room and a Half” and "Less than One". Even thought the poet left this place in 1972 and never got a chance to return, it is fully preserved as it was during his life there and includes his personal belongings, books, paintings, and letters. Unfortunately, the museum is closed and will not reopen in the near future due to multiple issues.
Just down the street from Brodsky's is the Nekrasov Apartment Museum. The poet spent in this flat the last 20 years of his life, but the significance of this place is not only in its former inhabitant but also in the regular visitors who Nekrasov liked to have over: among those were Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky. On one hand, we see bears and other animal trophies (Nekrasov was an avid hunter) as well as hundreds of books, original manuscripts, and other personal items. On the other, this space also housed the editorial office of the two best Russian literary journals of the second half of the 19th century: Sovremennik and The Domestic Notes. On display are portraits of Nekrasov by Kramskoy and Makovsky, the writer’s original photographs, as well as portraits and photographs of his famous contemporaries. In other words, this place embodies an entire era but read up on Nekrasov first, as most of the information is in Russian.
Next on the way (and on the same street) was the Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House, the home of St Petersburg's most famous 20th-century poet. As I was trying to find my way to the entrance, I walked by the gathering of people who were commemorating Marina Tsvetaeva by reading her poetry on the 75th anniversary of her death. Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova were heavily influenced by each other's works. As for the location, Anna Akhmatova lived here with her partner Nikolai Punin between 1924 until 1952. The exhibition is made up of autographed editions of Akhmatova's works, photographs, and manuscripts by Akhmatova and her contemporaries, whereas the current interior mimics that of the original flat. In this museum, you can also find the Brodsky American Study, an authentic recreation of the office room in his home in Massachusetts, housed here for lack of a better location. All materials on display are either translated into or in English.
Of course, I could not possibly miss out on Dostoevsky museum (in case you haven't read my blog post on why Russians don't smile I'm his biggest fan). His memorial museum is one of the twenty flats where the writer, originally from Moscow, stayed: once for a short time in 1846, then from 1878 until his death 3 years later. The current memorial space is 4 small rooms recreated from memoirs and an exhibit that chronologically walks the visitor through Dostoevsky's life by means of pictures, manuscripts, and artefacts. But this is not the only spot literary fans will appreciate: you can also check out Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov's house and Pawnbroker's flat, as well Dostoevsky's other houses (for example, Vladimirskiy prosp., 19). For detailed route ideas and self-guided tours with addresses I highly recommend exploring this and this links. Otherwise you can easily find a suitable walking or boat tour through a travel agency.
- "This is a city of half-crazy people... there are few places where you'll find so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of a man as in St Petersburg." (Crime and Punishment)
- "You seldom come across places that have so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of man as there are in St. Petersburg. The mere influences of climate means so much. And it’s the administrative centre of all Russia so its character must be reflected on the whole country.’" (Crime and Punishment)
- "I am told that the Petersburg climate is bad for me, and that with my small means it is very expensive to live in Petersburg. I know all that better than all these sage and experienced counsellors and monitors.... But I am remaining in Petersburg; I am not going away from Petersburg! I am not going away because ... ech! Why, it is absolutely no matter whether I am going away or not going away." (Notes from the Underground)
One of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg is the Nabokov Museum. I did not visit it this time around, but the impression it left me with 4 years ago was so strong that I even used it as a case study for the Museums, Heritage and Memory course I took in my Bachelor's (I minored in Anthropology; shall you be interested in that paper, I will be happy to send you a copy). The museum space consists of the former dining room, the drawing room and the library room on the first floor of Nabokov's house where he was born in 1899 and raised until emigration in 1917. To Nabokov, this was "the only house in the world" as he never owned any house after their departure. Whereas the first floor has retained much of their original look, the rest of the building has little resemblance with the Nabokov days. After the Nabokovs' property was nationalised in 1917 most things in the house were taken away by the Bolsheviks and distributed between museums and libraries or sold to collectors. Today's collection was started from scratch: Nabokov memorabilia (from glasses to sketches and books) and some part of his famous extensive butterfly collection. The museum fosters Nabokov's legacy through exhibits related to Nabokov's life as well as many events and activities such as readings, lectures, conferences, and an annual summer school.
St Petersburg's museums are not all about the city's celebrated writers. In fact, it seems like it takes pride in housing a museum for pretty much anything: vodka (we are still in Russia after all), bread, Arctic and Antarctic (well why not), and Sigmund Freud Dream. I bet you did not see that one coming! Admission fees are pretty low averaging at 250R , but foreigners pay about 100 roubles more (students enjoy discounts).
While I was tempted to actually go and see them all, my top activity in this city is definitely simply walking around. For a population of about 5 million people, Saint Petersburg feels rather compact yet not really crowded. It is an utter pleasure to stroll around along the canals and, weather permitting, I suggest taking a boat cruise - it is a relaxing, informative activity that provides an opportunity to see everything from a different angle. In particular, you get to see Petersburg's famous bridges: there are 342 of them over canals and rivers across the city plus another 133 in the surrounding towns. Take a night cruise between April and November and watch some of these bridges draw to let ships pass in and out of the Baltic Sea - a spectacular sight!
In the likely event of rain take a walk to New Holland. Having just undergone three years' worth of renovation and reconstruction, this mini-island and park is set to become the new cultural hub for residents and visitors alike. In almost 300 hundred years of existence, the island has been used as a naval prison, a navy laboratory, a radio station, and finally as what it is now: a social space filled with cafés, temporary installations and exhibitions, markets, stages, and so on. Sounds promising, but we shall see how this plan rolls out.
Speaking of walking, I shall share an observation. As I was trying to find my accomodation, I could not help but notice the many numbers plastered all over the pavement (see picture above). These numbers, accompanied with a female name or with words like "girls", "wife for an hour", "beauties", cover streets all over the city. At first I geniunely could not believe that this is merely a new medium for prostitution, but once again my hope for the better was ruined. Hookers (and their pimps?) in Saint Petersburg are so polite they just paint their phone on the ground. How is this real life???
And so I decided to head back to museums to avoid further disappointments. It is not every day that I get a chance to see something exceptionally beautiful, therefore The Fabergé Museum was an obvious choice. Of the 65 known Fabergé eggs, 57 have survived the test of time, and 9 of them are on permanent display in St Petersburg, the hometown of Peter Carl Fabergé. The nine eggs were made for the last tsars of the Russian Empire - Alexander III and Nicolas II. Other than these masterpieces, the collection contains over 4,000 exquisite items of decorative applied and fine arts, tableware, paintings, porcelain, and bronze. 20/10, would recommend.
On my last day a local friend of mine told me about two museums that I had never heard of before and they thus were all the more exciting: the History Museum-Scale Model "Peter the Great Aquatory" and the National Show-Museum “Grand Maket Russia”. The former is a series of interactive miniature models of Saint Petersburg through the centuries to modern days; if I were 10 years old, this is exactly how I would like to learn history. The latter is a slightly more ambitious project: it is a miniature exposition of ALL of Russia. That is a mere 17 million square km territory we are talking about. Pluto is smaller. Anyway, this 1:87-scale interactive model represents urban and rural scenes from across Russia, creating a collective image of the country. Day fades into night in 13-minute cycles, cars and buses stop at changing lights, ships sail - it all looks so cool I was bouncing off the walls with excitement. The creators clearly have a great sense of humour as they recreated some typical scenes of Russia's everyday life (see pictures for reference). The layout is so intrinsically done that makes it a great fun activity equally interesting to people of all ages and backgrounds.